Responsive design vs. adaptive design: What is the best route for your app?

By Jennifer Goforth Gregory

One of the trickiest parts about designing mobile apps is that your enterprise has no idea exactly which device — or, more importantly, which screen size — each customer will use. It could be an older smartphone with a smaller screen, the latest version with a bigger screen or even a full-size tablet. You must also consider the possibility of your customers using a laptop, full-size monitor or even a television screen.

It’s easy to lump mobile design into one category, but there are actually two types of mobile design: mobile responsive design and mobile adaptive design. Though there are some similarities between the two, it’s important to understand their differences so you can identify which type of design is best for your mobile project.

Regardless of what your customers use for your mobile app, they expect that it will look and work correctly. The expectation is that all enterprises design apps for multiple devices, and as such, they are typically not very forgiving when they experience poor mobile design.

Mobile responsive design

When a user opens an app with responsive mobile design, the app detects the size of the screen and then modifies the display so that the app looks and functions like it was specifically designed for that device. This type of design is client-sided, which means the app is changed for the device size when it reaches the browser. This is accomplished through fluid sizing, CSS media queries and a fluid grid. However, if the design uses code such as CSS, JavaScript or HTML not downloaded on the device, the user must specifically download the content to view the app.

Enterprises building a mobile site or app from scratch typically use mobile responsive design. This type of mobile design is easier to build and maintain than adaptive design, which means that the costs of developing the app are lower. Another benefit is that if device sizes not supported today are invented in the future, using responsive design ensures the app will still display correctly. Additionally, if the majority of users tend to use a single type of device, responsive is typically considered the best choice.

Adaptive web design

When a user opens an app with adaptive web design, the app detects the width of the screen and then modifies the layout so it displays correctly. Instead of the adaptation being made at the browser level, the server determines the screen size and then makes display and functionality modifications on the client side. Additionally, adaptive design detects which features are on the device and modifies the app to display using the enabled functionality.

It’s typically recommended to use adaptive design if you are modifying an existing website to make it mobile-friendly. A consideration when determining which design to use is the experience level of your development team because adaptive web design typically requires more code and is more complex to maintain. Because adaptive design results in faster loading times, enterprises often use this type of design when speed is a concern.

Many enterprises select responsive design for apps when their customers are likely to use a variety of devices. Use your web analytics tools to find common screen sizes your customers are using and select the most popular sizes. Keep in mind that the industry standard for adaptive design is six screen sizes, according to UXPin.

There is no disputing that mobile design is vital to the success of a mobile app. Your design decisions have a big impact on both the costs and customer satisfaction of the app. By taking the time to carefully decide whether adaptive design or responsive design is the best fit for your project, you can keep costs down and increase customer satisfaction at the same time.

Written By

Jennifer Goforth Gregory

B2B Content Marketing Writer

Jennifer Gregory has been writing professionally for over 20 years and specializes in big data analytics, cloud computing, personal finance, B2B, small business management, hospitality, Health IT, credit cards, marketing/social media, content marketing, retirement planning and insurance.…

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